Ever since The Karate Kid was released in 1984, audiences have argued over who the real villain of the story is. Everyone loves to root for an underdog, which is why it seems like the working-class, slightly weedy new kid being raised by a single parent is the undisputed hero of the movie. However, the more you watch this beloved 80s classic, the more apparent it becomes that Daniel LaRusso is hardly the pacifistic angel he’s made out to be. Today we’re looking at the moments of conflict throughout The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai to determine who was really the hero of the story.
The beach brawl
The fight on the beach is the first time we see Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso clash, and it’s easy to see why the two of them got off on the wrong foot so quickly. From Daniel’s point of view, he hits it off with a sweet girl during his first chance to make friends at a new place, only for some six-foot-tall blonde to show up with his entourage, steal his new crush’s radio, and throw him to the ground when he tries to stand up for her.
With that said, what if you’re Johnny Lawrence in this situation? You’ve just arrived at a party with all your friends, not to mention after resisting peer pressure and declining to drink and drive, and someone is flirting with your girlfriend. You tell the kid to scram so you can apologise and diffuse the situation, and you get punched in the face! If you’ve been taught for years to strike first and strike hard – what exactly are you supposed to do?
The motorbike clash
Unlike the beach brawl, the scene where Daniel LaRusso has his bike ridden off the road by the whole Cobra Kai gang is a little less multi-faceted. There’s no doubt that Lawrence is being spiteful and vindictive here, so it comes down to two things: whether or not you think Johnny Lawrence deserves to be angry, and how deadly you think his intent is.
There’s no denying that LaRusso’s fall looks super painful, but here’s the thing: it’s a grassy hill that he rolls down, not a cliff or a road. There’s no real danger beyond bruising, and the Cobra Kai gang specifically tell him that if he wants to fight them again, he needs to learn how to fall. The stunt definitely meets the criteria for bullying, but was it the attempted murder attempt that Daniel treats it as? Probably not.
The Halloween ambush
When Daniel soaks Johnny and friends at the Halloween dance, this leads to the horrific beatdown that nearly kills him, until Mr. Miyagi comes to the rescue. There’s no arguing that the five-on-one brawl leaves Daniel little chance to prevail, but some viewers argue that Daniel still deserves it for attacking Johnny unprovoked.
Still, this is one example of Daniel striking first (Cobra Kai-style), but not for no reason. Just minutes before, Ali tells Daniel that she would love to see Johnny Lawrence get a taste of his own medicine. Daniel is trying to do is grant the wish of his crush, who he has no reason to believe has ever been treated well by Johnny. Not to mention, it’s Ali who trips over and embarrassed the whole Cobra Kai crew.
The final match
The final tournament match is the culmination of both characters’ arcs in the film, and it has gone down as one of the most classic moments in 80s cinema. Things are about as fair as they can be, since Johnny and Daniel are fighting one-on-one in an arena where everyone can watch them. This is another example where it’s easy to root for Daniel, since he’s massively injured by the time of the final fight, and has had far less training than Johnny.
With that said, it is Johnny who hesitates when John Kreese tells him to sweep Daniel’s injured leg, whereas Daniel has no qualms about landing a painful, and possibly illegal, kick to Johnny’s face. By the end of the tournament, Johnny has lost his girlfriend, his title, and the respect of his fellow Cobra Kais and his mentor Kreese – but he still manages to respect Daniel for beating him, and tells him that “he’s alright.” Surely that’s the mark of a good guy?
All in all, The Karate Kid makes a pretty good case for the fact that, even if Daniel occasionally provoked him, the massive power imbalance between Johnny and Daniel means that Johnny’s actions were usually way too brutal and intense. Lawrence could have sucked it up and left the new kid alone, and he would have kept on being the wealthy popular kid who was also the most feared karate champion in the valley.
In Cobra Kai though, it’s a different story. Daniel LaRusso is now the well-off popular guy, with a beautiful wife and successful business. Johnny Lawrence is down on his luck, working as a handyman and drinking his way through most days. So when the two meet again and LaRusso takes the opportunity to brag about his past karate successes, he’s literally kicking Johnny while he’s down: not a good look for our former underdog hero.
Lawrence’s decision to re-open Cobra Kai
When Johnny Lawrence decides to reboot Cobra Kai he’s depressed, nearly penniless, and just wants to help a bullied kid defend himself the next time he’s attacked. Given that’s the exact same scenario in which Mr. Miyagi agreed to train Daniel LaRusso in the first place, it’s hard not to sympathise with his motives. Using the name, branding and motto of Cobra Kai was probably a bad call, but there’s no blaming Johnny for wanting to return to his glory days.
In short, Johnny starts his dojo for good reasons, and it’s the first glimmer of the heroic person he grows to be. Also, it’s clear that Johnny associates Cobra Kai way more with his friends and teammates than John Kreese, since Johnny never puts up Kreese’s portrait in the dojo the way Daniel does with Mr. Miyagi. Even when imitating Kreese’s style of teaching, there are moments where Johnny’s empathy and care for his students can’t help but shine through.
Daniel’s decision to open Miyagi-Do
By contrast, Daniel LaRusso might seem like he’s opening Miyagi-Do for the right reasons, but there’s a whole lot of ulterior motives and downsides under the surface. Wanting to stop history from repeating itself, honouring Mr Miyagi and teaching the real ethics of karate are all honourable goals, but it would be impossible to pretend that Daniel takes up the title of teacher for entirely selfless reasons.
A big part of LaRusso’s decision to open his own dojo is an irrational fear of Cobra Kai, and an unwillingness to see the clear evidence that Johnny was just as much of a victim of Kreese as Daniel was. Plus LaRusso’s opening of the dojo distracts him from his wife, causes his business to crumble, and even puts more kids in harm’s way by orchestrating a rivalry between the two dojos that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s a bad idea all around.
Daniel’s landlord meddling
Even if you think that Daniel opens Miyagi-Do for honourable reasons, there’s no defending what he does next. LaRusso uses his power as a wealthy business owner to wine, dine and sweet talk a local landlord into pricing Johnny out of his dojo space. Considering that Lawrence is living and working in the poorest part of the valley, where Daniel himself used to live, forcibly gentrifying the most deprived neighbourhood with under-the-table dealings is pretty low.
Not only does this move almost stop Johnny from continuing to run Cobra Kai, but it also almost takes away his ability to make money completely. At his lowest, Lawrence is literally taking his trophies and other possessions to the pawnshop, just to keep the lights on in his apartment. Yet Daniel is still determined to take his sole source of income away.
The tournament plea
Daniel trying to price Cobra Kai out of existence is a pretty sly and dishonourable move, but what makes it worse is that it’s part of a pattern of behaviour for the grown-up LaRusso. When appealing to Lawrence’s landlord doesn’t get rid of him, Daniel instead appeals to the board of the karate council to get Cobra Kai banned from recruiting and competing: a mean-spirited attempt made worse by the fact that Daniel is already a board member himself.
LaRusso could not be any more powerful in the local community, and he uses this power to block Lawrence at every turn, even when Johnny attempts to explain that he wants to run his dojo in a way that’s different from how Kreese did before him. Showing his growth, Johnny sits and takes it as Daniel does his best to paint Cobra Kai in as bad a light as possible, and doesn’t even interject when Daniel results to straight-up high school name-calling.
Johnny’s training methods
Though Johnny’s heart was in the right place when he reopened Cobra Kai, that doesn’t mean that he also goes about teaching his students in the right way. His teaching style is brought into serious question, as a result of him unconsciously channelling his ex-mentor Kreese. For instance, it’s hard to justify Johnny forcing the Cobra Kai kids to toughen up by training in a junkyard (as fun a montage as that proves to be).
Aside from being immensely dangerous, it’s hard to see what balancing above jagged pieces of scrap metal or hauling tires around is actually teaching them about karate, other than the fact that training is often followed by a tetanus shot. There’s also the fact that when Kreese returns, Johnny Lawrence ups the ante by encouraging the kids to run inside a huge cement mixer until everyone on the team reaches dangerous levels of exhaustion.
Daniel’s teaching style doesn’t really evolve much across the course of Cobra Kai, as he keeps teaching the form of karate that Mr. Miyagi taught him. However, LaRusso eventually proves himself as flexible and capable of growth as Johnny, just in a different way. Rather than changing his teaching style, he instead eventually learns the importance of opening up to his students.
He starts an honest dialogue about why Kreese’s methods are so appealing, rather than just dismissing them as evil outright. When Daniel confesses that he once was tempted into training with Cobra Kai under Terry Silver, it makes it clear that he doesn’t blame anyone who chooses to follow that path, since he also once chose it himself.
Moon’s birthday party
By Cobra Kai season two, Daniel and Johnny are slowly moving towards an uneasy alliance, when one unfortunate event throws a spanner in the works: Moon’s birthday party. Though organised by Cobra Kai, Sam and Robby attend as Moon (the only neutral and non-karate affiliated character in the show) believes everyone could get along if they just tried. Sadly, the party makes everything worse, when Sam gets into a drinking contest with her nemesis Tory.
Because Sam’s drunkenness would get her in trouble, Robby can’t take her home to the LaRusso’s, and so they are forced to crash with the person Robby least wants to see in the world: Johnny Lawrence. This choice (along with Sam’s drunken decision to kiss Miguel at the party) manages to ruin both the uneasy truce between Johnny and Daniel, and the friendships formed between the high-schoolers, in one fell swoop.
The party aftermath
Sam and Robby’s decision to sleep over at Johnny Lawrence’s house is one of the only times that LaRusso and Lawrence are forced to clash not as high school rivals or as karate teachers, but as fathers, and their reactions say a lot about their attitudes as parents. For his part, Johnny does everything right, putting aside his jealousy and bitterness about the LaRussos to do the right thing.
But how does Daniel react? By bursting in unannounced and in a panic, and immediately blaming Johnny and Robby for his daughter’s bad decisions. Instead of hearing Sam out when she pleads that he needs to know what actually happens, Daniel falls right back onto his old prejudices, and declares that not only is Johnny bad and irresponsible, but that Robby is destined to grow up and become exactly the same as his father. Yikes.
How Daniel deals with the fight
Sam’s behaviour at the party, kissing Miguel and humiliating Tory publicly, are a huge part of what leads to Cobra Kai’s series two finale: the fight at the school. It’s a brawl with tragic consequences, as Sam is physically and emotionally scarred by Tory’s dirty fighting tactics, Tory is expelled, and Robby is forced to flee from the law after putting Miguel into a coma. Both dojos are left in shambles after the fight, and their teachers are equally lost and distraught.
However, the ways in which Daniel and Johnny both deal with the tragedy could not be more different. Daniel does the right thing by immediately shutting down his dojo, and deciding to focus on the wellbeing of his family instead of trying to change the landscape of karate in the valley. Though he probably shouldn’t vilify Tory to the extent that he does, it’s hard to blame him for not taking a liking to the girl who tried to literally murder his daughter, and it’s admirable to see Daniel stepping up to repair all the damage his dojo did to his family and business.
How Johnny deals with the fight
Daniel’s guilt over the high school fight is nothing on Johnny’s, as Johnny feels both responsible for training Miguel in the first place, and trying to teach him to be a better person and show mercy, as mercy is what got Miguel hurt. Not only does Johnny feel as though he has failed Miguel, but he also feels as though his blossoming relationship with Miguel’s mother Carmen has also been lost forever.
However, there’s no excuse for Johnny abandoning the rest of his students, leading them to become even more extreme and brutal under Kreese’s influence and guidance. Not only that, but he immediately regresses back to the person he is at the start of Cobra Kai season one; drinking heavily, picking fights, and constantly running into the law.
Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso teaming up to find Robby is one of the most pivotal moments in the show when it comes to their ever-evolving relationship, as they both seem ready to work together and fix the toxicity. That means going on a mission to find Johnny’s son and Daniel’s adopted protégé, since both of them care deeply about him, and want to make sure he is safe and okay after dealing with the harrowing emotional consequences of accidentally causing Miguel to be hospitalised.
While searching for Robby, both Johnny and Daniel learn a little bit about each other’s backstory. Johnny learns just how difficult Daniel’s economic situation was as a kid, and Daniel realises that Johnny’s high school life wasn’t as ideal and problem-free as he had imagined. The pair even manage to joke about their beer choices and talk about history with Ali without exploding into a rage. Daniel even seems to subtly encourage Johnny to reach out to her, since he himself is happily married, which couldn’t have been easy for him to do.
Johnny Lawrence does spend a period of Cobra Kai wallowing in guilt and despair, but he does eventually manage to pull it together and focus on what really matters: helping Miguel to learn to walk again. It’s hard to fault Johnny Lawrence’s approach: he is completely dedicated to him from the beginning, and never gives up hope, or allows Miguel to give up hope, that he will get better.
Not only that, but Johnny has no ulterior motives when helping Miguel. He doesn’t encourage him to learn to walk again just so he can fight, and he barely touches the idea of Miguel studying karate again until Miguel himself brings it up. Contrary to his usual approach, Johnny encourages Miguel to forget about karate, Cobra Kai and school, and helps him to discover the fun of being a kid and harmlessly breaking the rules.
Sam’s panic attacks
Sam might not have come out of the school fight as physically wounded as Miguel, but she still has her fair share of mental and physical trauma to deal with. Despite trying to become the leader that Miyagi-Do needed in the absence of her father, she still finds herself overcome by panic attacks and flashbacks whenever she faced Tory, leading to her standing by as Kreese’s Cobra Kai members break Dimitri’s arm.
By the time Daniel returns from his business trip to Japan, Sam’s skipping school, waking up in cold sweats, and living with both the fear of Tory and the guilt of knowing that she allowed one of her own to be hurt. Similar to Johnny, Daniel immediately puts aside all his concerns about his livelihood, his rivalries and his relationship with karate, and makes it his mission to help Sam overcome her debilitating anxiety.
Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso teaming up to defeat John Kreese might be something that fans have wanted to see since the Karate Kid film days, but it wasn’t something that most ever expected to happen. Even if some people were hopeful that the Cobra Kai series would allow Daniel and Johnny to make their peace and take on the real karate villain of the valley, neither of them were ready to do that at the beginning of the show.
It took three seasons worth of growth for both characters to put aside their egos, their petty rivalries and their long-held grudges, and realise that their decision to keep fighting was not just hurting them, but poisoning the next generation. It is a tribute to how far both Daniel and Johnny have come that the season three finale shows them finally teaming up to take down Cobra Kai, even if it has taken the heartbreak of Robby deciding to train under Kreese to make it happen.
Overall, Cobra Kai does a great job of humanising both Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, showing how they are both trying to become better people. The trouble is, both of them are constantly being held back by the assumptions, trauma responses and prejudices they formed as teenagers, even once they have begun to make progress and understand the bigger picture.
If the moral of the show is anything, it’s that students are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their mentors, especially if their mentors don’t know how to forgive and forget. The audience is always going to root for the character that they feel is the hardest done by. In The Karate Kid, that’s obviously Daniel, but in the early seasons of Cobra Kai it’s Johnny we feel for the most. Anyway you look at it, there’s no question that Johnny Lawrence has always been far more than just a stereotypical 80s villain.